Monday, July 31, 2017

Deadtime Stories: Volume 1

George Romero serves as executive producer and host for a trio of horror shorts in the anthology Deadtime Stories: Volume 1 (2009), but not even his presence can shake the enterprise's overall hokiness.

In "Valley of Shadows," a young woman leads an expedition to the jungles of South America to find out what happened to her missing husband. "Wet" tells the story of a lonely alcoholic who finds a strange object in the beach outside his home and learns about the legend of mermaids. The finale is "House Call," the best of the lot, about an old doctor in the countryside paying a visit to a patient who may have been bitten by a vampire.

I don't know how involved with the production of Deadtime Stories Romero actually was. Executive producer is a nebulous term, but I doubt he did more than let the filmmakers put his name on the movie to help sell it. As a host, he delivers some lame puns but lacks the ghoulish glee the Cryptkeeper would have brought. It doesn't help he delivers his lines from a comfy armchair in what looks like his living room.

Deadtime Stories is the brainchild of Jeff Monahan, who acted for Romero in The Dark Half, Two Evil Eyes, and Bruiser. Monahan has an interesting background. Before becoming an actor and filmmaker, he worked as an undercover narcotics officer. He's worked in film, television, and theater; taught college course; and written a book. Here, he writes all three shorts, directs one of them, and stars in another. I only wish the movie was as accomplished as he is.

Obviously shot on a low budget, Deadtime Stories rarely comes off as anything more than amateurish. It aspires to be an anthology in the style Tales from the Darkside or Tales from the Crypt but lacks the professionalism and resources to pull it off.

"Valley of Shadows" opens the proceedings with a dud, at no point able to convince the viewers it's really set in a South American jungle. Monahan directs this one, but it's flat and dull. It doesn't feel complete; characterization and scene transitions are missing, and the gore and makeup effects look like the kind of thing you could get from a local Halloween store. Worst of all, the one cannibal savage we see is clearly a white actor in makeup; I thought this would mean the lost husband had gone native but apparently not.

"Wet" is an improvement. Monahan stars as the doomed Jack, and director Michael Fischa does an OK job conveying some mood and atmosphere without dialogue. The performances are better than in "Valley of Shadows," I liked how the mermaid's presence as she stalks through the house was initially suggested though sound rather than shown. and the beach setting gives this a somewhat Lovecraftian vibe. Plus, it looks like they really filmed this at a beach house. Not great, not terrible, but it loses focus by the end.

Tom Savini, Romero's longtime special effects wizard, directs "House Call," and I thought this one was pretty good. Savini convinces us of the period setting and has fun playing with light and shadows, and as he did in his episodes of Tales from the Darkside, he crafts some cool compositions. One monstrous yet sensual shot shows the young vampire feeding on a victim, and the camera follows a line of blood as it streaks down her naked body, visible only by moonlight. Additionally, Creepshow and Two Evil Eyes veteran Bingo O'Malley gives a solid performance as the tired old doctor.

One out of three. A good average for baseball but not an anthology movie. If this were a student production, I'd be more forgiving, but with Romero's name and apparent approval, it's rather shocking he'd be a part of something so shoddy while his presence on camera is downright embarrassing. Savini's bit is worth checking out, but the rest you can skip.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eve's Bayou

What a great title: Eve's Bayou (1997). You get the Biblical connotations with Eve, and the bayou conjures image of a dense, tangled moss of wetlands and intrigue, a great setting for a story of labyrinth motivations and character revelations.

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (who had supporting performances in The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman), Eve's Bayou is a dark, Southern Gothic, coming-of-age melodrama set in the Louisiana bayou in the town of Eve's Bayou, a place where modernity lives alongside superstition and our protagonist, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), learns hard lessons about how adults aren't perfect and the world can be a cruel, illogical place.

"The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old," the grown Eve confides to us as the movie opens. The movie chronicles that fateful summer when Eve discovered her father Louis  (Samuel L. Jackson), the town doctor, is very attentive to his young, attractive female patients if you catch my drift.

Eve catches her father with another woman, and this knowledge hangs over her through the entire movie. She's not old enough to know about sex or adultery, but she understands her father is doing something wrong that threatens to tear apart her family. She doesn't know what to do. Eventually, through her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Eve learns about Voodoo.

The Voodoo of Eve's Bayou is deliberately ambiguous. It's hard to say whether it impacts the characters. Everything that happens could be read either way, via supernatural means or mundane explanations. Mozelle and Eve both have visions - figures walking through the mist, predictions of the future flashing before them, memories of the past reflected in a mirror - but are they really seeing ghostly phantasms or is the movie visualizing what they think they see?

It doesn't matter. The characters believe the magic is real, including Eve's mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield), who after a vision by Mozelle, orders her three children to remain indoors for the rest of the summer. Surely, locking three children, ages 8-14, in a hot house when tensions and temperature are high won't cause any strain or problems, right? Especially when Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) already blames their mom for driving their dad away?

Eve's Bayou is dark and tortured, but it's not a horror film. The Voodoo elements are a background to the character drama, although that doesn't stop Lemmons from giving the film other-worldly touches. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Mozelle describes how her lover shot her husband, and we see the men reflected in the mirror as she tells the story to Eve; when she gets to her part, she steps out of frame before re-appearing in the mirror as part of the action.

The past lives on, breathing alongside the present.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Due to the Dead

It shouldn't feel strange to put together the words "George Romero" and "dead." After all, film lovers, gore hounds, and zombie fiends have been doing that for almost fifty years now, since the release of his groundbreaking horror classic Night of the Living Dead

Yet, it does feel strange. George Romero is dead, having passed away on July 16 after a battle with cancer. Unlike his famous cinematic creations, he won't be coming back.

I'm not going to go into his legacy or what he did for the movie industry and the horror genre. Plenty of other people have done so, and I can't add much to it. More successful and talented people who knew Romero, such as Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro, have said their piece, and while I never met the man, I've followed his career for the better part of the last fifteen years, as long as I've been serious about movies and moviemaking. I can only describe what he meant to me.

In some ways, I'm an atypical George Romero fan. Growing up, I always loved movies but not horror. I avoided scary movies, especially zombie movies, because they freaked me out so much. Two titles in particular affected me: Night of the Living Dead and The Return of the Living Dead. The former felt like a waking nightmare; the latter, which I didn't realize at the time was a comedy, bothered me because these zombies couldn't be killed.

So I avoided horror for years, and pretending to be a zombie or threatening to change the TV channel to one of those movies was an easy way for family members, especially my older brother, to scare me.

Gradually, I overcame that fear, sneaking in clips of movies on TV, daring myself to be braver. The turning point came in seventh grade when I did a project on Mel Brooks. Weird transition, I know, but I discussed this in my Day of the Dead review. My mom bought this massive, red book on the history of Hollywood for me to use as research and to cut out pictures from.

The book contained a section on 80s horror by Mark Kermode, the British film critic. He talked about Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Fly, etc. He also devoted a couple of paragraphs to Day of the Dead, Romero's third zombie movie and at the time his conclusion to the series. I don't have the book anymore, but a few choice phrases stuck with me: "Romero's multi-layered script" and "supremely intelligent festival of gore."

The writeup hit me like a lightning bolt. A horror movie, a zombie movie, intelligent? Multi-layered? It didn't seem possible. I was baffled but intrigued. Also, I knew of Night of the Living Dead but had no clue there were any sequels. What was the name of the middle chapter? What was that story?

Sometime later, I found Night on TV and watched it, with eyes more open and mind more receptive. I appreciated it more. I also read the info box on screen that made note to mention "Directed by George Romero." Not every movie's director was listed by the cable company unless they were at the level of a Steven Spielberg or a Stanley Kubrick. This Romero must be up there with those guys, I thought, and my thought was confirmed, to me anyway, when shortly afterward, I saw his episode of The Directors, a TV series that showcased the great directors.

Romero came off as friendly, articulate, insightful, and he seemed like a great guy to root for. More importantly, I learned about all these other movies he made that I could now seek out and watch, which I did.

The timing was good. This was around the time I became interested in filmmaking, the craft, the greats, the process. Romero - and John Carpenter - was my window into that, seeing how he imbued his movies with intelligence, wit, style, and substance. A few years later, he finally received funding to continue his series and made Land of the Dead.

Romero was the first director I actively followed. True, I did the project on Mel Brooks and knew about Steven Spielberg but didn't really pay attention to their current output. I collected all the news on Romero, reading every interview I could find, visiting a million websites, tracking all the announcements about his next projects (Diamond Dead! The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon! From a Buick 8!), and eagerly anticipated whatever he had planned next.

Sadly, a lot of those next projects became never projects, falling through for one reason or another. Despite his impact and success, Hollywood never totally embraced Romero, forcing him to scrape by on lower-budget fare and churning out more and more zombie movies, even when it became clear he wanted to move on. I probably like Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead more than most horror fans, but I admit they are, compared to the rest of his work, weak. When those movies were announced, I was disappointed he was going back to the zombie well.

I've spent more time than I should have reading up on all those films he almost directed: Before I Wake, Resident Evil, The Stand, The Mummy (I even bought a copy of his script), Apartment Living, Carnivore. I could go on. It's depressing to read up about all the work one of your favorite directors wanted to do but couldn't.

Romero, like Rod Serling, used the trappings of the genre to tell interesting stories that had something to say about society. His movies dealt with racism, feminism, consumerism, class warfare, family conflict, government overreach, identity. He gazed hard upon the dark nature of humanity and brought it out in a palatable and entertaining vehicle. He - along with collaborators such as special effects makeup wizard Tom Savini - created some of cinema's most memorable, shocking, and visceral images.

He's very much the kind of storyteller I want to be. I hesitate to call him my favorite director because those superlatives are hard to quantify, and I admit there are better filmmakers who have been more innovative and consistent in quality, many of whom I'd count among my favorites, too.

But Romero, I relate to him more than the others. I see more of me in him, or at least more of the traits I value and wish I had: independent, socially conscious, always trying to find greater meaning and value where most people wouldn't think to look, daring, exploring new terrains, a sense of humor. He made many movies I enjoy and will enjoy.

Thank you, George. I will stay scared.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sabotage

The cracks in the ship's hull have appeared.

Sabotage is the last great album in a streak by Black Sabbath's original lineup going back to their debut album. It's heavy as hell and filled with daring musical ideas that showed they were still in progressing their sound. But their subject matter suggests some discord in the camp, and while they funneled that tension into great music here, it eventually tore them apart.

The album opens strong with the apocalyptic yet environmentally conscious "Hole in the Sky." It's heavy, it has a monster riff, and it's one of Sabbath's best. After a brief acoustic interlude, Sabbath, having already forged heavy metal, invent thrash metal with "Symptom of the Universe, and listening to it today, one can hear its influence on everyone from Diamond Head to Metallica to Iron Maiden with its speed, aggression, and multiple parts and time changes.

"Symptom," along with "The Writ," are sometimes considered the anti-Led Zeppelin songs. Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" famously begins slow and quiet, building in intensity and speed, and by the end, it's blazing. Sabbath perform the opposite: starting heavy and angry before easing into a gentle, acoustic exit that peacefully soars out. Anyone who ever doubted Sabbath's technical chops should give these tracks a listen.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath found the band incorporating a variety of instruments, from flutes and pianos to synthesizers. Here, the band experiments with different song structures. Except for "Hole in the Sky," they avoid the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo arrangement. The moody "Megalomania" is nearly 10 minutes long but sure doesn't feel like it, and "The Writ" is nearly eight minutes.

"Am I Going Insane (Radio)" does the unthinkable: there's no guitar on it. It's entirely synth-driven. Meanwhile, "Supertzar" is built around a wordless vocal riff that sounds like Hell's gospel choir.

From the subject matter perspective, Sabotage finds Black Sabbath in a dark place. Not dark as in gothic or creepy like their previous works, but dark in the sense the band is finding itself on unstable ground. By 1975, they had achieved massive success, and now they had to cope with it.

The anxieties of success are felt, especially on "The Writ," in which they lash out at a former manager who ripped them off, and "Megalomania" finds them singing about how they feel the "dream of my soul" is poisoned, "fantasies have taken complete control," and "why doesn't everybody leave me alone now."

It's obvious trouble was brewing within the band at this point, and drug use was starting to get out of hand. At least on Sabotage, they showed they still had some creative life left.

Favorite Tracks
"Hole in the Sky" - A heavy, rocking opener.
"Symptom of the Universe" - Sabbath gives birth to thrash.
"The Writ" - Dark, cynical, and elaborate.

Favorite Moment
In "Symptom of the Universe," Tony Iommi's electric solo erupts with a vengeance and just as easily slides into the mellow acoustic outro.

Album Cover
The band, their backs to a mirror, is matched by reflected doppelgangers. Eerie, perhaps indicating potential self-sabotage.

Track Order
1) Hole in the Sky
2) Don't Start (Too Late)
3) Symptom of the Universe
4) Megalomania
5) The Thrill of it All
6) Supertzar
7) Am I Going Insane (Radio)
8) The Writ

Personnel
Ozzy Osbourne – Vocals
Tony Iommi – Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, Organ, Harp
Terry "Geezer" Butler – Bass
Bill Ward – Drums, Percussion

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director Lynne Ramsay touched on parent-child relationships in Ratcatcher and a number of her shorts, but while the adults and children had their foibles and flaws, you can't say any were all good or all bad. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) gives us a character without redeeming qualities. He is pure evil, and he happens to be our main character's son, Kevin.

Going into We Need to Talk About Kevin, I expected something more slickly commercial and straightforward from Ramsay, better known for her gritty style. She's working with established stars in Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and a higher budget, and I expected something along the lines of The Good Son or The Bad Seed.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is more polished from a technical standpoint, but it is not commercial or straightforward. The conventional narrative would have been to gradually build toward whatever evil plan Kevin (Ezra Miller as a teenager, a couple of child actors when he's younger) attempts and his mother Eva (Swinton) gradually realizing her son's true nature and trying to stop him.

That's not what we get. The film jumps around its timeline, beginning after Kevin has already done that bad thing (which I won't spoil but it resonates in modern America) with Eva, a pariah in the community for having birthed this monster, trying to rebuild her life. The film flashes back to the boy's birth and other incidents that illustrate how weird and malicious he is while Eva's husband (Reilly) refuses to see the truth about their son.

Ramsay's style is abstract, distorted, and surreal. Events from the past and present overlap, memories intertwine with present actions, and the effect is jarring, almost like we're looking at the pieces of an emotional and mental that come together perfectly as the movie progresses. It's never confusing and I was never lost; as the movie unfolds and we sift through everything, what happens becomes evident.

Evil might be too simplistic of a description for Kevin, although his actions certainly qualify. Cold, emotionless, and with nothing but contempt for his mother might be the better characteristics. The movie offers no explanation for why he's this way.

Seemingly from birth, he acts only to make her miserable by emotionally manipulating her and psychologically blackmailing her. While he commits a number of violent and depraved actions, that material occurs mostly off-screen or is suggested, which is somehow more effective than if we had seen them.

Make no mistake: We Need to Talk About Kevin is creepy and disturbing, but it's fascinating to watch unfold. It's not a traditional thriller that builds to a plot resolution. It pulls the viewer into a disturbing web and creates something unsettling.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

1916

Motörhead stretch their creative wings and play ... ballads?!

1916 (1991) contains many of the aggressive, driving, rock-n-roll influenced heavy metal tracks we expect from Motörhead, songs like "The One to Sing the Blues," "I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)," "Make My Day," "No Voices in the Sky," and "Going to Brazil." They blaze and fire, and when you hear them, you just want to bang your head, flip off your teacher, and punch someone.

"Eye for Eye, tooth for tooth, you all know what I mean.
What's the use of a cry for help if no one hears you scream?
No one hears you scream."

But Motörhead includes slower songs on 1916, songs about love ("Love Me Forever") and dark, atmospheric songs that are more eerie than rocking ("Nightmare/The Dreamtime"). The latter wouldn't be out of place on a Black Sabbath album (or maybe it could serve as the intro for a Megadeth song), but "Love Me Forever" is undoubtedly a power ballad. Not even Motörhead was immune from the trends of the 80s, but I can award points for waiting until the rise of grunge to do it. Not caring if a trend was dead before hopping on the bandwagon is the kind of no-shits Lemmy would give.

Even "Angel City," which has the hallmarks of a traditional Motörhead  rock tune, sounds more like a boogie from a bar band than the group that helped pioneer speed metal. It's only missing a backing piano and a horn section.

The closing song, the title track, contains no guitars or bass, just a simple, marching drumbeat accompanied by a cello as Lemmy sadly sings about young soldiers dying in the trenches. For a band that staked its reputation on swagger, noise, and controlled chaos, it's a somber, sensitive piece. It's genuinely sad.

"I heard my friend cry,
And he sank to his knees, coughing blood
As he screamed for his mother
And I fell by his side,
And that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other."

I'm not criticizing 1916, just describing it. It's an odd entry in the band's canon, but they play as well as ever. A few catchy, hard-driving tracks that don't overstay their welcome now mixed with a few deviations of the formula. It's not my go-to Motörhead album, but every time I listen to it, I'm glad I do.

Favorite Songs
"No Voices in the Sky" - Fast, aggressive, loud, and full of venom. Even Beavis and Butthead couldn't mock it.
"R.A.M.O.N.E.S." - A tribute to the legendary punk act that sounds like a Ramones song.

Favorite Moments
The pre-chorus and chorus of "No Voices in the Sky." It's where things go crazy.

Album Cover
The band's mascot Snaggletooth on a battlefield surrounded by flags of the nations that participated in World War I. Pretty cool.

Track Order
1) The One to Sing the Blues
2) I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)
3) No Voices in the Sky
4) Going to Brazil
5) Nightmare/The Dreamtime
6) Love Me Forever
7) Angel City
8) Make My Day
9) R.A.M.O.N.E.S.
10) Shut You Down
11) 1916

Personnel
Lemmy Kilmister – Lead Vocals and Bass
Phil "Wizzö" Campbell – Guitar
Michael "Würzel" Burston – Guitar
Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor – Drums

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

A musician friend of mine (a guitarist in the Cleveland-based band Ottawa) told me this is his favorite Black Sabbath album.

While it's not my favorite (that honor belongs to Master of Reality), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is undoubtedly Sabbath's most accomplished work, finding the boys pushing their sound to the limits of heavy metal and experimenting with new instrumental and production techniques. Simply put, it's the band's most sophisticated and ambitious album.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath opens with its title track, the riff that's been credited with saving the band. Suffering from writer's block and creative exhaustion, the group rented space in a reportedly haunted castle for inspiration, and as a result, Tony Iommi gives us one of his most complex and darkest songs. It is progressive heavy metal, filled with aggressive driving riffs, chugging refrains, acoustic interludes, foreboding atmosphere, and several tempo chances while Ozzy Osbourne gives one of his best performances.

"Where can you run to?
What more can you do?
No more tomorrow.
Life is killing you.
Dreams turn to nightmares
Heaven turns to Hell."

The opening song is an angry track from the lords of gloom and doom, but they vary the emotions elsewhere. "A National Acrobat" slows down with an almost funky bass and "Spiral Architect" builds to its climax with a backing string section, but the abstract imagery of their lyrics (about conception and DNA respectively) and their progressive styles wouldn't be out of place on Vol. 4.

"Fluff" is a tender, beautiful piano-driven instrumental. Meanwhile, "Sabbra Cadabra" plays like a heavy jazz piece, full of swing and bounce (plus Rick Wakeman of Yes on keyboards!). Its keyboards are downright boogie, and the lyrics could fit on a pop song.

"Feel so good, I feel so fine.
Lovely little lady always on my mind
She gives me lovin' every night and day.
Never gonna leave her. Never going away."

For the early part of its run, Sabbath was a meat-and-potatoes heavy metal band: four guys, a guitar, a bass, and drums. Sure, "Changes" had a piano on it, but that was an outlier. Their production was raw (behind-the-scenes stories reveal they recorded  those early albums in a couple of days or less), but here, the instrumentation is heavily layered and filled with multiple, overlapping parts, giving the album a rich, rounded sound.

Sabbath uses instruments not normally used for the genre, including the piano on "Fluff," the keyboard on "Sabbra Cadabra," the synthesizers on "Who Are You?" the flute on "Looking for Today," and the strings "Spiral Architect." They even mix acoustic guitars with the distorted electrics, creating a nice texture. Impressively, these unorthodox choices don't feel out of place.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is firmly entrenched in heavily metal, but the boys show just how varied in effect the genre can be. The album still sounds like Black Sabbath, even as they chart new territory.

Standout Tracks
"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" - A monster opening that's both heavy and complex.
"A National Acrobat" - Heavy and moody but dreamy.
"Sabbra Cadabra" - Sabbath rocks and swings.

Favorite Moment
The breakdown of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (4 minutes and 40 seconds into the song). It's one of my favorite licks by Iommi.

Album Cover
Naked demons, a rat, and a snake ravish a man on a Satanic bed in reddish tint color. Perhaps the band's most evil album cover.

Song Order
1) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
2) A National Acrobat
3) Fluff
4) Sabbra Cadabra
5) Killing Yourself to Live
6) Who are You?
7) Looking for Today
8) Spiral Architect

Personnel
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Tony Iommi  - Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, Harpsichord, Organ, Flute, Handclaps, Bagpipes
Geezer Butler - Bass, Synthesizer, Mellotron, Handclaps, Nose Flute
Bill Ward - Drums, Bongos, Timpani, Handclaps 
And a guest spot by Rick Wakeman

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Gasman

Talk about awkward family get-togethers. In Gasman (1998), Lynne and her brother Stephen walk with their father to a company Christmas party at a pub. Along the way, their father talks with a woman and brings along two other children, about the same age as Lynne and Stephen.

Anyone older than 12 can probably guess long before Lynne and Stephen that those two other kids are also their father's children. Such is the innocence of childhood. Children can be wonderful viewpoints in stories: they see everything but they don't grasp everything or they're not told everything by the adults around them, so their perspectives are skewed.

It's not a surprise when Lynne gets jealous at the other girl sits on her daddy's lap (but she really gets mad when the girl says that's her daddy, too). The adults are the ones with the curious behavior. We don't know if Lynne's mother knows that her husband supports another woman and two other children, and the other woman apparently is OK with being "the other woman" as long as he brings money and takes the kids along occasionally. The father's behavior is both cowardly and expected: say nothing on the arrangement, act like nothing is wrong, and hope the kids get along.

It's a lot of drama and complexity for a 15-minute short, and director Lynne Ramsay films it with unsentimental grittiness. As with her other work, she keeps the camera close and intimate with her characters, except for the long shots of the father and his two sets of children walking along the railroad track.

This is not a warm, happy family. In trying to keep everything, the father has only succeed in driving his children away.

Kill the Day

A junkie steals a bag from a locker, spends time in jail, tries to go clean, and reflects on his childhood in Lynne Ramsay's 18-minute short Kill the Day (1996).

The junkie is James Gallagher (James Ramsay), and it's through him we see the world around him: grim, indifferent, and cold. He has a haunted, cadaverous face, filled with lines and shadows, and Ramsay shows them in many closeups that also allow us to see his mind working. For some reason, he reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, perhaps because of how thin Gallagher looks and for the number of shots of him lying in bed, looking desperate and helpless.

Ramsay keeps her camera close to Gallagher. At times, the short feels like it could be a documentary. It's an intimate portrayal. Even the flashback of Gallagher as a boy frolicking in a field with some friends has the quality of a home movie. The film feels gritty and immediate.

Elsewhere, Ramsay films Gallagher in ways to suggest he is trapped: inside a bathroom stall, the blank walls of his cell, his face against the glass of a window, etc. We see him on the floor or lying on his bed, showing how low he has sunk in the grips of addiction and recovery. Everywhere he goes, he's confined.

Curiously, we never see Gallagher actually take drugs (unless you count smoking cigarettes). Perhaps such a scene wasn't needed. We can already see what effect they've had on his life. Maybe such a scene would have caused to judge him and disapprove of him. Ramsay does not ask us to judge Gallagher, only to understand him and see how the world treats him.

Small Deaths

The debut of director Lynne Ramsay, Small Deaths (1996) is an 11-minute short that captures three events in the life of Anne Marie. It's a dramatic, mini-anthology that centers on the same character over the course of many years .

As a little girl in "Ma and Da," Anne Marie (Lynne Ramsay Jr., the director's niece) watches as her mother helps her father get ready for a night out at the pub. In "Holy Cow," the teenaged Anne Marie (Genna Gillan) and her sister play in a wheat field when they stumble on a dying cow. By the time she's a young woman in "Joke," Anne Marie (Anne-Marie Kennedy), has a boyfriend whom she follows upstairs to an apartment, not knowing what she'll find.

You could call this a coming of age story since we literally see Anne Marie come of age over the course of the film, but more importantly, she learns hard lessons in each of the segments about how cruel people can be and the consequences of actions. For its short running length, Small Deaths is unbelievably ambitious.

Ramsay's direction is assured and polished as she captures some of the grittiness and despair she'd film later in Ratcatcher. Her style is economic and says a lot visually without too much dialogue to explain everything. She uses a lot of static shots and overhead angles to illustrate how isolated and vulnerable Anne Marie is while showcasing her environment, whether it be the carpeted living room of her parents' living room, the open wheat fields, or the grimy stairwell of a strange apartment complex.

She also gives us some nicely layered shots that showcase the depth of the frame and combine the key elements of the scene. I especially like the shot of Anne Marie's face in the foreground with her parents in the background as her mother combs her father's hair. In "Joke," when the reveal is made, Ramsay films the other characters in warped wide angle shots that distorts their mocking faces into something almost inhuman.
By the end, we understand why everything has affected Anne Marie and how it has impacted her.

Ratcatcher

I never expected to watch an English-language movie with the subtitles on because I thought the characters spoke a different language. Such is the impenetrability of the Scottish accent.

Ratcatcher (1999), written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, might be the grimmest and grimiest slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie I've ever seen. It follows James (William Eadie), a 12-year-old boy who lives in Glasgow during the 1973 garbage strike, so rubbish and filth fill the streets. As the movie opens, James gets into a play fight with Ryan, a boy about his age, in the dirty canal near their homes, and Ryan drowns.

Immediately, the movie lets us know it is not going to be cutesy or sentimental. Ratcatcher avoids the obvious, trite arcs the story could have followed. James finds no escape or release (at least not permanently), and while he learns some important lessons, they aren't especially useful ones, more like realizations of how much his life sucks and probably won't get better.

James' family is poor. They live in a cramped, messy apartment, awaiting word that they can move to a nice new home in the countryside. In the meantime, James' mother (Mandy Mathews) combs lice from her son's scalp, his father (Tommy Flanagan) is usually drunk, and he doesn't get along with his sisters. The isolated James finds neither warmth nor comfort from his family and keeping secret his involvement in Ryan's death doesn't help.

It's a downer of a movie, but it's not completely grim. Ramsay mines some humanity from the bleakness. James finds friendship with Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), an older girl the local teenage gang bullies for sexual favors, and James even picks the lice out of her hair. They end up bathing together, but it's not really sexual (even though James' first sexual encounter is with her and it is extremely uncomfortable, for them and the audience); it's more innocent than that: they treat each other like people and show affection.

Ramsay also include some humor, albeit in an understated, sometimes depressing manner, the kind of material you laugh at in spite of yourself. After Ryan's mother (Jackie Quinn) breaks down in tears, she gives James the new shoes she purchased for her son the day he died. He complains loudly they don't fit. The cruel innocence of childhood.

Except for a couple of instances, Ramsay shoots the movie with the realism of a documentary, very down-to-earth and in-your-face with the squalor and desperation. We're the right there neck-and-neck with the characters, and the effect is discomforting.

Notable exceptions occur when James takes the bus to the homes under construction. He roams through the property and climbs through a window a wheat field where he can run unhindered in the warm glow.

Another time occurs when local boy Kenny (John Miller) ties his pet rat Snowball to a balloon and sets him free to float to the moon. The film becomes surreal in this sequence, showing the little rodent actually going to the moon, where several rats already live and scurry about. It's a jarring image in an otherwise grounded movie. I'm still torn over whether it's a nice moment of brightness or out of place.

Did I like the movie? I don't know. I admired the craft and the performances, and I wanted to see it through, never bored. It has moments of great power and insight, but I can't say I want to re-visit it anytime soon. It deals in uncomfortable truths.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Baby Driver

If you have the time, check out this video on YouTube by Every Frame a Painting. It breaks down why Edgar Wright is a marvelous visual director (I also recommend the other videos on the channel if you're interested in learning more about film grammar and techniques), and you'll see how Wright cinematically tells jokes and reveals character, which he does a lot of in Baby Driver (2017).

Baby Driver is the latest from Wright, who also wrote the film. It'd make for an interesting double feature with Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, if only because it plays like a quirky, comedic variation of a similar setup: an expert getaway driver gets in over his head with some nasty crooks on a job that goes wrong, has a complicated history with a mentor figure, and romances a sweet, innocent girl.

The driver is Baby (Ansel Elgort). The nasty crooks are Bats (Jamie Foxx, who has never played a more despicable character), Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza Gonzelez). The mentor figure doubles as the guy organizing the job, Doc (Kevin Spacey). The sweet girl is a waitress, Debora (Lilly James who is charming in an underwritten role).

The quirkiness stems from Baby himself. An accident in his youth that killed his parents also gave him tinnitus, and to drown out the noise, he listens to music all the time. Literally, all the time, even when he's driving, being chased by police, or hearing instructions from Doc. When he's forced to carjack an old woman, he doesn't speed away until he finds a song on the radio he likes (then he tosses the old lady her purse and apologizes).

Baby synchronizes everything he does to music, even delaying the start of one robbery to start a song over. Remember that scene in Shaun of the Dead when Shaun and his friends fight off a zombie as Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" plays on the jukebox? It's like that, except through most of the movie. In fact, another Queen song pops up in Baby Driver, "Brighton Rock." He also listens to funk and soul music (I love how the movie doesn't play the same songs we've heard in other movies a hundred times already).

Other jokes are more overtly silly. Early on, Bats instructs a cohort to buy Michael Myers masks for a job and gets exasperated when the guy turns up not with the blank visage of the famed slasher but Austin Powers masks. When told he was supposed to find the mask of the killer from Halloween, the guy goes, "You mean Jason, right?"

The script falters in the last act some. Doc can't seem to decide whether he's fond of Baby or if he just considers him a tool to exploit, and the earlier quirkiness gives way to more or less straight up action and revenge.

Baby Drivers moves fast with energy and excitement, and performances are good all around. The action scenes are exceptionally well done; I felt the impact every time the car crashed into something and my heart was racing.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Career Politicians

If you type "career politicians" into Google, 390,000 results appear. On the first page, I found links to stories, webpages, and articles such as "Charlie Daniels: Our System was not Designed for Career Politicians," "Career Politicians on the Rise: How to Stem the Tide," and "Senator: Term Limits would Make Career Politicians Obsolete."

Apparently, you don't want to be called a career politician. Career politician brings to mind images of corrupt, political fat cats who exploit the system, contribute nothing to society, and leach off the rest of us; they are the elected officials more concerned with living large and keeping their jobs than helping people or bettering the country.

I don't like the term "career politician." I think it is a lazy, cynical catch-all term that serves as a knee-jerk substitute for real arguments about the accomplishments and failures of our elected leaders. It's much easier to denounce someone as a "career politician" than it is to examine at their record. Plus, some of the loudest voices condemning "career politicians" are people who also could be considered career politicians or at the very least are deeply embedded in politics.

Are there lazy, do-nothing politicians who leach off their positions, only serve themselves, and spend more time campaigning and raising money than they do fulfilling their jobs? Absolutely, but we're not getting anywhere labeling everyone as such.

I don't like the term "career politician" because it equates good politicians - those who are dedicated, serve with integrity, and push for policy that helps people - with bad politicians - the lazy, insulated fat cats who treat their positions not as a calling to serve others but to enrich themselves without giving back.

If you don't like a politician because of their political beliefs, fine. If you don't like them for their voting record, fine. If you don't like them for the statements they've made, fine. But please, don't dislike them because they're "career politicians."

Politics is the art of the compromise and negotiation; writing legislation and understanding how the law works; balancing competing interests, groups, and goals; and knowing how to work with and communicate with people, whether they are colleagues in your caucus, your opponents across the aisle, representatives of various organizations and nations, or most importantly, your constituents.

It's a job that requires many skills and traits: intelligence, diligence, dedication, hard work, communication, leadership, and vision. If someone will all this decides to dedicate their life to public service as an elected official, by all means, we should encourage them to run for office.

When good people and talented individuals avoid office, who do you think is left to take the reigns and make the decisions that impact us all?

Frankly, everyone in America, all of us, should think of ourselves as "career politicians." The United States is a democracy, and for it to work, we need to participate. Acting as if politics is somehow beneath us accomplishes nothing. I'm not saying everyone should seek office, but stay involved and be informed.

Read newspapers, lots of them, including the ones whose editorial pages you disagree with. Stay up-to-date on the issues impacting your community and the nation. When you see or hear news that sounds too good or too bad to be true, research it; find out whether it is. Attend your city council meetings. Write or phone you representatives and senators about the issues that concern you. Organize or participate in a march or assembly for a cause you believe in.

And vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. But please do so in an informed manner. Know the issues and candidates. Understand not just your position, but the other side. At least consider why someone might want to vote against you.

Yes, politics is frustrating. Yes, it can be disappointing. Yes, it's hard. That's the price if we want our voice to count. It's better than the alternative, and for it to work, we must subject politicians, or anyone seeking power, to the strictest of scrutiny and hold them accountable for everything they do and say.

Those who don't want to put up with that, who feel their position is above that level of criticism and transparency, the ones seeking individual reward, those career politicians can get lost.

But those who put up with it, the ones who meet the ethical and moral standards we demand, the ones who value service over reward and the people over themselves, we should want them as career politicians.

British Steel

British Steel was for me, and for many "heavy metal maniacs," my gateway drug to the awesomeness of Judas Priest.

While comparably heavier and more aggressive than other bands' output at the time, earlier Priest albums such as Sin After and Stained Class can be heard more as hard rock, but with British Steel, Rob Halford and company hoisted the heavy metal banner and have been Defenders of the Faith ever since (sorry, I couldn't resist).

In fact, Halford took his iconic nickname from British Steel. "Metal Gods" might be about robots revolting against their human masters and enslaving humanity, but like a lot of Priest songs, it can be read as a celebration of heavy metal fandom: rebellious, anti-authoritarian, and all powerful (the added metallic sounds of hammers striking gives the song a cool industrial edge).

"From techno seeds we first planted,
Evolved a mind of its own.
Marching in the streets,
Dragging iron feet."

A spirit of rebellion infuses the album, a desire to break free and defy social norms. The two big hits of the album - "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight" - along with "You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise" embrace that wild spirit and youthful vigor. Forget rules and all those old folks keeping you down; go out and have a good time.

"I grow sick and tired of the same old lies.
Might look a little young.
So what's wrong?
You don't have to be old to be wise."

Compared to those earlier albums and later albums such as Painkiller, British Steel finds Priest slowing down the tempo but ramping up the melody and heaviness. Only the opener, "Rapid Fire" which charges out of the gate, and the blazing race-to-the-finish closer "Steeler" could be considered speed metal, but the other songs aren't the sludge-like marches of Black Sabbath; they have more rhythm and are catchy. You can easily hum or sing along. Imagine AC/DC with a heavier crunch.

Take "Grinder." Its rhythm is simple, direct, and filled with breaks, but each palm-muted chord of the main feels like something monstrous taking a bite out of the listener. For a slow song, it has a menacing edge.

"Grinder
Looking for meat.
Grinder
Wants you to eat." 

British Steel is not the most technically sophisticated of Judas Priest albums, and the band's commercial aspirations are apparent, but in the end, it's not about what you do but how you do it. On British Steel, Judas Priest plays chugging, headbanging heavy metal, and they do it splendidly.

Standout Songs
"Metal Gods" - The lick that follows the chorus is sweet.
"Grinder" - Slow, moody, and dangerous.
"Steeler" - An epic race to the end of the album.

Favorite Moment
During "Breaking the Law," Halford yells, "You don't know what it's like!" Police sirens and breaking glass follow. It's chaos and anarchy, and I love it.

Album Cover
A hand clutches a razor blade. So much cool suggested by one simple image: metal, danger, living on the edge, sleekness.

Track Order
1) Rapid Fire
2) Metal Gods
3) Breaking the Law
4) Grinder
5) United
6) You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise
7) Living After Midnight
8) The Rage
9) Steeler

Personnel
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitar
K.K. Downing - Guitar
Ian Hill - Bass
Dave Holland - Drums 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bad Magic

To the end, Motörhead was Motörhead and Lemmy was Lemmy.

Released in August 2015, Bad Magic proved to be the final album of  Motörhead. By the end of the year, Lemmy Kilmister, the group's incomparable and legendary frontman, died, ending the band's 40-year run of hard-rocking and aggressive heavy metal.

Health problems plagued Lemmy in his final years, and perhaps his own mortality was on his mind as he penned such songs as "Victory or Die," "Till the End," and "When the Sky Comes Looking for You." Even as he stares death in the face, Lemmy exhibited no regrets and no remorse about who he is.

"In my life, the times have changed. 
I'm still the man I was.
I don't want to hear your fairy tales.
All I know is who I am. 
I'll never let you down,
The last one you can trust until the end, 
Until the end.

The choice to cover the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" might seems like an odd choice to include on the album, but the eternal rebellious and bad boy spirit of the track could just as well as describe Lemmy. Plus, Lemmy always insisted Motörhead was a rock n roll band, and he appreciated the greats of the genre, including the likes of Stones, the Beatles, and Little Richard. Interestingly, Lemmy forgoes his trademark raspy croak and actually sings on it.

Elsewhere, Bad Magic is what we'd expect from a latter-day Motörhead album: loud, brash, heavy, fast, and catchy. Even as he winds down, Lemmy retains his no-frills, tough-guy persona and remains defiant against the world, singing songs with such titles as "Teach Them How to Bleed," "Tell Me Who to Kill," and "Choking on Your Screams." Motörhead wants no pity and shows no mercy.

"Tell the world a good word, catch me if you can
Better face it all now, show 'em what you need.
Let 'em come. Let 'em come.
Teach them how to bleed."

Vocally, Lemmy sounds tired. Not enough to scuttle the music, but it's noticeable and forgivable. Fortunately, guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee, not mention his own bass playing, pick him up; they still play loud and fast. The production is smooth and crisp, and the songs follow the expected three chords and rocking approach. The album doesn't overstay its welcome.

Bad Magic is a fine album, as found of a farewell as we can expect from the iconic group. Even as they pass into the sunset, Motörhead still sounds like Motörhead and as strong as ever.

Standout Songs
"Teach Them How to Bleed" - Just a bad ass fight song.
"Till the End" - Motörhead slows down, but it's a poignant number.
"Tell Me Who to Kill" - See what I said about "Teach Them How to Bleed."
"Sympathy For the Devil" - A classic Stones number sounds cool as a metal track.

Favorite Moment
The chorus of "Till the End." It's defiant and sad, heavy but tender in its own way.

Album Cover
The band and album name in white letters stenciled across a black background around the Snaggletooth logo. No frills and direct, like the band itself.

Track Order
1) Victory or Die
2) Thunder and Lightning
3) Fire Storm Hotel
4) Shoot Out All Your Lights
5) The Devil
6) Electricity
7) Evil Eye
8) Teach Them How to Bleed
9) Till the End
10) Tell Me Who to Kill
11) Choking on Your Screams
12) When the Sky Comes Looking for You
13) Sympathy for the Devil

Personnel
Lemmy Kilmister - Vocals and Bass
Phil Campbell - Guitar
Mikkey Dee - Drums